Saturday, September 9, 2023

Q&A with Tom Phillips




Tom Phillips is the author of the new middle grade novel S.O.S., the second in his Curious League of Detectives and Thieves series, which began with Egypt's Fire. Also an artist and video editor, he lives in Los Angeles.


Q: S.O.S. is the second in your Curious League series--did you know from the start that you'd be writing more than one book about your characters John and Toadius?


A: I originally planned on writing multiple books like A Series of Unfortunate Events or Spy School. As long as readers want to see John and Toadius on adventures, I will have stories to tell. However, I have a definite ending planned to wrap up the series and reveal the narrator’s identity.


I come from a television writing background, where we always want a closed-loop season with a hook at the end. But too many times, writers go too far and leave their viewers with more questions than answers. My editor, Alison Weiss, is a genius at striking that balance. She ensures that the books have a complete arc but leaves room for future adventures.


Q: What inspired the plot of S.O.S.?


A: I always knew they would be on a cruise ship. One of my lofty goals is to introduce new readers to classic mystery tropes. Egypt’s Fire was a classic jewel heist, like The Pink Panther or The Jewel Robbery at the Grand Metropolitan by Agatha Christie. S.O.S. is my take on Death on the Nile.


The underlying theme for S.O.S. didn’t come to me until I was at a school visit in Colorado. A student wanted to know if I was famous. When I replied that I was not famous, they asked how many TikTok followers I had. Their infatuation with followers and equating that number to success was thought-provoking and terrifying.


It got me thinking about John. He had no friends his age in the first book, but he needed them. After solving the world’s biggest jewel heist, John would have enjoyed some fame. I decided to see how John handled his newfound notoriety while trying to find genuine friendships.


Fame is an illusion, and I wanted to show kids that true success isn’t always made with grand gestures, but it is often found in small moments. I like to say, “Four quarters are more valuable than ninety-nine pennies.” In other words, four good friends are worth more than 99 followers—or even more than 99,000 followers, for that matter.


The plot became about John’s journey to find friends, come to terms with his fame, and the responsibility those things bring.


Q: Without giving anything away, did you know how the story would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I am a plotter (meaning, I plan out the story’s beats before I write it). I feel like in a mystery with so many moving parts, you must plan. I often change minor plot points as I work through a book, but the overall story is usually very close to what I began with.

The most significant change I made from my original plotline surrounded the characters of Kana Rai and Wembley Quokkas. My publisher’s only request for the second book was to have John find friends his age. Initially, I had planned for there to be only one new friend in S.O.S. When my editor said she really wanted more age-appropriate friends, I struggled.


Often, when we see a trifecta of friends in books, one represents the heart, one exemplifies the brain, and one symbolizes strength. The “strength” is usually our main character, the heart is the comic relief, and the brain is the girl. But in my case, the main character had to be the brains. John is the detective and has already established himself as a puzzle-solver.


That left the heart and the strength. A female character that personifies the heart is interesting if she is also the comic relief, but female “heart” characters are often confined to the love interest. Since this is 2023, that felt a bit stale.


So, I thought, “What if Kana were the strength?” I imagined this circus “strongman” archetype but in a 12-year-old girl. And that’s where I really found Kana’s voice.


Initially, she was planned as a stowaway that everyone thought was a ghost haunting the cruise liner, but a strong girl who was a performer on the ship and possessed a wit to match John’s ultimately became (excuse the pun) a “stronger” choice.


As for my heart character, Wembley, I wanted him to love things that aren’t traditionally masculine. For example, my nephews are obsessed with cute videos, cartoons, and toys. Why isn’t that historically acceptable for boys? They also like many more traditional things, but it made me stop and ask why we don’t see these characteristics more often in media.


I made Wembley more like my nephews and some of my friends’ boys, because they should see themselves in books, too.


When we were done, John’s friends were the perfect companions to join the already Curious League of Detectives and Thieves.


Q: Did you need to do any research to write the novel, and if so, did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: For this book, the themes of illusion kept me busy researching magic tricks. I use a classic piece called “The Assistant’s Revenge,” which was shared with me when I met with one of the world’s best magician “ingenieures” (or inventor of tricks), Diana Zimmerman (a.k.a. The Enchantress). She helped guide me to find the perfect illusion for the book. 


I am obsessed with magic, but more with how an act is constructed than watching performances. Most illusions are based on simple principles and remind me of the similarities between social media influencers and stage magicians, so they fit perfectly into the themes of S.O.S.


Q: So will there be more in the series? What are you working on now?


A: I am happy to say, Yes! I am working on the third installment of The Curious League of Detectives and Thieves. In The Peruvian Express, we will join John on a train and explore the jungles of Peru. This installment will mix Murder on the Orient Express with The Great Train Robbery. I won’t spoil anything but there are llamas, Incan gold, and chicken nuggets.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I prefer when books do not talk down to children, not just in language but also in plot. Kids can handle multiple plot lines. They can comprehend a cast of characters and often solve the mystery before an author wants them to (I’m looking at you, Vincent).


By using humor and pacing, you can make the complex feel simple. And I believe my readers’ cognitive skills will be more robust by the time they reach the end of my books.


We really need to give this new generation credit where credit is due. They are curious, intelligent and, in many ways, more cynical than we were at the same age. They keep me guessing, so I try to keep them guessing.


As a dyslexic author, I know how hard it is to get your kids to read. I write my books for the Tommys out in the world who hate to read and love to play video games. I write to help our boys become better men, by teaching them compassion, self-love, and to not take themselves so seriously.


Our world is changing by the minute and if we try to use the same rules we learned when we were their age, we will only set them up for failure.


I try to write books that kids will love and that if parents are playing the audiobook in your car for the hundredth time you won’t want to jerk the wheel and drive off a cliff. I hope that you all will enjoy this new installment of the Curious League. As always, be kind, be courageous, but most of all be curious.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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